Stargazing: What to look up for at night

Our local clocks have now moved back to Greenwich Mean Time and follow the movement of the sun.

Shetland’s astronomy season has well and truly started. Two years ago November brought us Comet Holm­es, a most unusual naked eye comet. There may be no bright comets fore­cast but there is a spectacular meteor storm this month.

Sun RiseSun SetMoon RiseMoon Set
1st BST 7:28am4:08pm 3:01pm5:54am
15th BST 8:04am3:34pm6:46am 2:15pm
30th GMT 8:39am 3:07pm 1:26pm 6:31am
New Moon is on the 16th and Full Moon on the 2nd

Sunset to 9pm

The moon will be out of the way from the 7th to the 20th.

The early evening sky brings Jupiter in the south that can be used as a signpost to Neptune. If you have a decent map you should be able to find Uranus. The Milky Way should be easily visible as will Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

9pm to 3am

The moon will be out of the way from the 11th to the 25th.

By midnight the magnificent win­ter constellations of Taurus and Orion will be visible to the south. Just look at them and enjoy yourself.

Mars will have risen in the east and is in the constellation of Cancer.

3am to sunrise

The moon will be out of the way from the 14th to the 29th.

By the time Mars is due south Saturn will have risen below the constellation of Leo. An hour before sunrise you should be able to see Venus low in the east.

There are several smaller meteor showers this month but there is one big one – the Leonids.

In the past this meteor shower has given some wonderful sights but it is not consistent and you can have some years when it is difficult to see it at all. This year predictions are for a very good showing. While meteors will be seen throughout November the night of the 17th is predicted to be spectacular with the meteors coming from the dust laid down by Comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1466. There will be no moon to interfere so even if there are only gaps in the clouds look for meteors coming from the north-east.

What a busy time it has been astronomically. Last month I sug­gested it would be possible to see all the planets in our solar system in one night. Well I nearly did it – only Mercury escaped in the low cloud of the morning. There may be another chance near the end of December. But the second planet I saw that night was Neptune and it is very easy to find in binoculars as the photo shows.

Look to the south about 6pm. There is the bright planet Jupiter low down in the sky. Focus your binoc­ulars on the planet and you should see the Galilean moons of the planet. Now move your binoculars to the left so that Jupiter sits at the right of your field of view. You will see two of the bright stars of the constellation Capricorn on the left of your view.

Next move your binoculars until the two stars are at the bottom of your field of view. In the middle you should now see a group of stars that look like a five-spot on a dice or dominos. The “star” at the upper left of these five is the planet Neptune. You will be looking at the furthest planet from our sun – as it was about four hours previously. It takes the light from Neptune over four hours to reach the earth.

You may have read in The Shet­land Times a couple of weeks back about the Scottish Solar System Project, which is basically construct­ing the world’s largest scale model of our solar system. With the sun centred in Glasgow our earth is around 25 miles out of the city while Neptune lies where Shetland does.

Along with the project and be­cause it is the International Year of Astronomy, Shetland Astronomical Society are having a series of talks about planets.

Last weekend Frazer Pearce of Nottingham University gave a talk on Exo-planets – planets around other stars. He told us that it was a simple talk about simple ideas but it was also a talk that showed that science is still learning and that physics is alive and well.

The first third of the talk was taken up describing the eight planets of our solar system and how we have the rocky planets closest to the sun and the gas giants further out.

The second third was on how to find planets around other stars and it took the simple idea that if you have an object moving around a star it will cause it to wobble at little. Then by using a sensitive camera on a telescope you could measure the little changes in light from the star that showed it was wobbling. Further basic maths could find the size of the planet and its orbit.

The idea is so simple that with a bit of maths and a medium sized telescope and photometer (camera) you could do it from home if you have a dark enough sky and the time. So with 403 planets found outside our solar system not one of them is earth-like and many defy the ideas of the scientists that thought all solar systems would be like ours. So aliens look to be few and far between – if there are any.

The third part of the talk was an open question and answer session that started with Dr Pearce’s work but moved on to other astronomical topics, and why not when you have your own professional astronomer in the room to ask.

With Christmas coming you may be on the hunt for that astronomical present. My advice can only be the same as in previous years.

There are now several astronomy magazines so maybe a subscription to one of them. If you are looking for an optical instrument then consider 10×50 or 7×50 binoculars, a tripod to put them on and a clamp to hold them together. These can be found in the town.

You may think of buying a tele­scope so consider a small reflecting telescope rather than those 400 times magnification mail order telescopes on their flimsy tripods.

Remember a telescope is in three parts, tube, tripod/mount and eye­piece. They all have to be of equal quality, as the weakest will let down any extra expense spent on another part of the system. There are now some reasonably priced Dobsonian telescopes and small computerised instruments.

If you are looking for a camera then go for one with either a B set­ting or manual control that gives you about 30-second exposure. Check the local suppliers and the astrono­mical magazines as well as the internet.

But if you are still not sure what to buy then remember that the Shetland Astronomical Society has another talk at the museum on the 21st with John Baruch of Bradford University. Dr Baruch is the project manager of the Bradford Robotic Telescope that I have mentioned several times in this column. There will be telescopes and binoculars on show in the foyer before the talk so you can look and ask.

Hope to see you on the 21st.

Clear skies.

Chris Brown


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